Book Review: Charles Montgomery's "Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design"

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D.(Arch.), Director IMCL

“… cities must be regarded as more than engines of wealth; they must be viewed as systems that should be shaped to improve human well-being.”

I read Happy City with surprise and delight. Finally, a book that reveals to a broad audience the essence of what it takes to make a city that promotes health and happiness. It is not simply a planning, architecture, urban design, or engineering issue; the issue is how to shape an urban environment that facilitates social interaction and the development of community and social capital using these tools. This book tells this story most admirably!

In this wise and readable book, Charles Montgomery has gathered together recent evidence and eternal truths about how to make cities that foster a sense of well-being. He understands, better than most experts in the city-building professions, that the key issue is how the built environment shapes our everyday social interactions. He has paid serious attention to social scientists who have long insisted “the greatest of human satisfactions lies in working and playing cooperatively with other people.” And from this, he has deduced that “the most important psychological effect of the city is the way in which it moderates our relationships with other people.”

The author has absorbed and understood Lewis Mumford’s dictum: “Perhaps the best definition of the city in its higher aspects is to say that it is a place designed to offer the widest facilities for significant conversation. The dialogue is one of the ultimate expressions of life in the city[i].”  Following from that observation, Mumford emphasized: “And if provisions for dialogue and drama, in all their ramifications, is one of the essential offices of the city, then one key to urban development should be plain – it lies in the widening of the circle of those capable of participating in it, till in the end all (men) will take part in the conversation.”

Taking these factors into account, Montgomery proposes a “recipe” for increasing urban happiness, which emphasizes: “Most of all, [the city] should enable us to build and strengthen the bonds between friends, families, and strangers that give life meaning, bonds that represent the city’s greatest achievement and opportunity.”

Montgomery is walking where many others have gone before, but this book takes the reader on a fascinating journey of discovery that he himself trod – to meet many of the current thinkers and doers around the world. He engagingly summarizes the roots of this way of looking at cities as contexts for human life, and implications for city planning and urban design.

This fascinating book introduces the reader to many real people struggling with the dismaying impacts of social isolation caused by suburban sprawl. It draws on the “insights of philosophers, psychologists, brain scientists, and happiness economists”, to explain the problems people face; and it introduces the reader to many of the great leaders in the field – mayors, architects, urban designers, and transportation planners who are working to solve this vast problem. And above all, he asks “Who is the city for?”

Montgomery’s own journey began when he met Bogotá’s visionary Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who in 2000 began to transform his troubled city into a happy city, and who has continued to inspire mayors and planners the world over.  On the journey we encounter urban space planner Jan Gehl, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, political scientist Robert Putnam, neuroeconomist Paul Zak, transportation planners Lawrence Frank and Jeffrey Tumlin, psychology professor Robert Thayer, the Project for Public Space’s Fred Kent, and a host of others.

And he invites the reader to see places through his eyes: riding through Paris on a Vélib (bike rental); walking to primary school in the pedestrian-friendly mixed-use neighborhood, Vauban, in Freiburg, Germany; biking among the 6-year-olds and elders in the child-friendly Houten, in the Netherlands; riding the bus in Bogotá; and to many other cities around the world. 

Montgomery examines the guiding principles of Modern architecture and planning, and the problems of zoning codes that led to suburban sprawl. He reviews the social implications of density and high-rise, and effects of urban design on conviviality, and arrives at the same conclusion as urbanist, Patrick Condon, that in American cities it was the streetcar suburb that provided the best scale for happy living – “almost everything you needed was a five-minute walk or a brief streetcar ride away.”

It is gratifying that these concerns are attracting such broad attention. In 1982, my late husband, Henry L. Lennard, a social psychologist and medical sociologist and I formed an organization called the Center for Urban Well-Being. Henry was a world-renowned expert on social interaction. In an earlier book[ii], he had written: “Human beings are characterized by their strivings for, and dependence upon interaction with other human beings. Such interaction is an end in itself, and interactional deprivation leads to anguish, loneliness, and depression. Interaction defines the humanness of the self.”

We formed our organization (later renamed International Making Cities Livable -IMCL) to bring to the attention of elected officials and city-making professionals the absolute necessity of understanding the effects urban design and planning decisions had on the quality of citizens’ everyday lives, and to clarify how to create urban settings that help to develop social interaction and community. As we emphasized in our first book together, Public Life in Urban Places[iii], “City dwellers everywhere seem to have a desire, indeed a basic need, for the diversity, sociability, and community made possible by being in public.”

In recent decades, researchers into the connection between social science and public health have documented the fact that the quality of our everyday social life affects not only our well-being, but also our physical health. Those who are tied into a supportive daily face-to-face social network are less likely to become sick, and heal more quickly than those who live more isolated lives. This health-protective function of social networks is called a “social immune system”.

While Montgomery acknowledges that traffic-free plazas with the right ingredients (shops, cafes, benches, etc.) offer the best settings for sociability, he does not specifically call for North American cities to take action on that knowledge. IMCL emphasizes the importance of reclaiming and creating these places. If we want to increase quality of life, we need not only hospitable streets but also traffic-free squares, market places, piazzas or plazas – places where community members gather for necessary activities, involving shops and neighborhood services, and where, while so engaged, they meet their neighbors and stop for lunch, where children play while parents chat, informal business deals take place over coffee, and elders meet for a sundowner.

In North America, we still have not fully valued the wealth of plazas and squares inherited from the Spanish and Colonial city founders. We have allowed them to become traffic intersections, parking lots, and green spaces surrounded by traffic. We have a need for parks, too, but parks do not fulfill the same social functions as the urban square. Mumford again: “This social function of the open place has persisted in the Latin countries: plaza, campo, piazza, grand’ place, descend directly from the agora; for it is in the open place, with its surrounding cafes and restaurants, that spontaneous and face-to-face meetings, conversations, encounters, and flirtations take place, unformalized even when habitual.”

Today, it is ever more urgent for elected city officials and planners to understand why our first priority must be to protect and improve the sociable character of the public realm – our common wealth. It is the public realm that, if well designed, can provide us with our greatest opportunities for social life, encounter, and development of social networks essential for our “social immune system”, and thus our physical health and sense of well-being.

Montgomery warns: “The struggle for the happy city is going to be long and difficult. The broken city lives in the rituals and practices of planners, engineers, and developers. It lives in law and code, and in concrete and asphalt. It lives in our own habits, too. Those of us who care about the living city are going to have to fight for it in the streets, in the halls of government, in the legal and social codes that guide us, and in the ways we move and live and think.

“The champions of the happy city have begun to show us the way.

“There have been victories at city hall. Visionary mayors, planners, and even traffic engineers have demonstrated that the urban experience can be transformed by changing the city’s hardware.”

We are still at a cross roads where we must choose how we want to live, and what kind of a city we want to hand on to our children’s children. On the one hand, world cities are being shaped by global investors and developers as megacity-scale machines for living (especially in China and the Far East), and as investment hedges for the wealthy, who desire safe-deposit-condos far above street level. This model of city development (especially in developing and oil-rich countries) arises from an over-emphasis on the importance of the GDP model that sees productivity and economic standard of living as the ultimate goal. 

On the other hand, European cities, and some North American cities, are moving beyond the basic economic measures and increasingly emphasizing quality of life. In simple terms, this dichotomy boils down to two planning choices – whether to maximize construction of buildings, especially high-rise, which increases private and corporate wealth and provides one of the fastest ways to increase GDP; or whether to focus more on the creation of successful mixed-use, multi-functional, human-scale public places – the common wealth – which foster community, and support social and physical health.

As Mumford said, the decision that we face globally is whether to devote ourselves to the development of our own deepest humanity, or to surrender to the almost automatic forces we have set in motion and yield place to our de-humanized alter ego, ‘Post-historic Man’. “That second choice will bring with it a progressive loss of feeling, emotion, creative audacity, and finally consciousness.”

Montgomery places himself squarely on the side of improving quality of life: “… cities must be regarded as more than engines of wealth” he emphasizes; “they must be viewed as systems that should be shaped to improve human well-being.”

While China and the developing world may choose to increase productivity and standard of living by vast construction projects, North America and Europe must rise above this, and foster the higher values of quality of life. The future success of our culture requires that we foster in our youth the agile creativity, intellectual resilience, and social and physical health that come from being raised in a rich and sustaining social environment.

Happy City is a powerful argument for improving quality of life in cities, an introduction to visionary individuals leading the way, and a compendium of strategies and tools for achieving this goal. We recommend this book most highly to all concerned with making cities healthy and livable.

Charles Montgomery will be a featured keynote speaker at the 51st IMCL Conference on Making Cities Healthy for All, which takes place June 8-12, 2014, at the Governor Hotel in Portland, OR. There will be a book signing immediately after the talk.


Charles Montgomery (2013) Happy City. Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. New York: Farrar Strauss & Giroux

[i] Mumford, Lewis (1961) The City in History. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co. pp 116-117.

[ii] Lennard, Henry L. (1971). Mystification and Drug Misuse. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

[iii] Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard & Henry L. Lennard (1984). Public Life in Urban Places. Southampton, NY: Gondolier Press.